Fact Sheet - Executive functioning

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Executive functioning - extended version

What is executive functioning?
Executive functions are skills that are used for:
• planning and doing tasks,
• organising ,
• regulating behaviour,
• working memory,
• impulse control, and
• attention.

There are two main areas of executive functioning skills. First there are skills that help us choose goals and achieve them. These include: 

  • Planning: This includes deciding on what’s important (and not important) and then making a plan to get a task done.
  • Organisation: This is about staying on task.
  • Time management: Understanding about how important time is and how to get jobs done in time.
  • Working memory: This is being able to remember information while working on other tasks.
  • Thinking about our own thinking: This includes checking on how things are going for ourselves.

The second main area is skills that guide behaviour. These include:

  • Response inhibition: This is about stopping ourselves so that we can think through what we should do next.
  • Emotional control: This is managing emotions so that we can finish a task.
  • Attention: Being able to pay attention to a task we need to do, even if we’re bored or tired.
  • Task initiation: Starting a job when needed.
  • Flexibility: Being able to change plans.
  • Persistence: Being about to keep going to finish a job.

Together these skills allow us to make plans, finish work on time, cope with distractions, ask for help, figure out whether something is a good idea and take turns. They also help us not to over react to small problems and to focus on more than one thing at a time, to make decisions, check for mistakes and change plans if we need to  – all the things we need to make life easier at school and work.

Executive functioning skills begin to develop in babies and grow and change into adulthood. Difficulties become easier to notice when children are in late primary school and high school. This is when children need to be more independent in organising their homework and jobs in class.

Executive functioning and ASD
Some researchers think that some of the social and behaviour difficulties seen in children on the autism spectrum might be because of executive functioning difficulties. One of the reasons they think this is because people with a brain injury in a certain part of the brain can be like people on the spectrum. The part of the brain is the called the frontal lobe and this is where executive functions are located.

However, even though many children on the spectrum have executive functioning difficulties, it probably isn’t the only reason for behaviours seen in ASD. This is because many other children (who don’t have autism) can have executive functioning problems.

Research has found executive functioning for children on the spectrum often improves as they get older.

How is executive functioning assessed?
The best way to assess executive functioning is by getting information from a few different sources. These can include parent history, parent and teacher questions, formal assessments and classroom observations. The way children cope in everyday life is an important part of the assessment.

What are the impacts of poor executive functioning on children on the spectrum?
Executive functioning difficulties can make life difficult for children at school and home. Some of the common problems include:

What strategies are helpful?
There are a range of strategies that are used to support children with executive functioning difficulties. It is important that they match the individual needs of the child.
Visual supports may be helpful for some children. Visual supports can be used to:

  • support change and transitions,
  • making steps in a tasks easy to follow, and
  • help manage emotions.

Practical strategies can also be helpful, such as:

  • breaking tasks into smaller steps,
  • providing scaffolding for writing tasks-story maps etc.,
  • using timers,
  • planned breaks, and
  • rewards.

Other resources



(Reviewed in November 2016)